Prisoner advocate Jim McCloskey couldn’t stop the execution of convicted murderer Roger Coleman. But he kept trying to prove Coleman’s innocence — and the result may profoundly change death-penalty politics.
THE INMATE AND THE MINISTER sat on the prison floor, staring at each other and chewing cold crust. The decision to order pizza from a delivery place outside the prison had been, in retrospect, a bad one. Nobody wants his last meal to taste like a tombstone.
The cell — called a “death cell” — ran about 30 feet deep and 20 feet wide, much larger than regular cells. It contained the typical toilet, sink and cot, only spaced farther apart. The minister sat outside the cell and the prisoner sat inside, and passed slices of pepperoni pizza between the bars.
Jim McCloskey, a minister from Princeton, had worked for years to prove the innocence of the man looking back at him. McCloskey ran Centurion Ministries, an organization devoted to freeing innocent men and women, with an astonishing success rate. Roger Coleman stood accused of rape and murder, in a tiny Appalachian town. At that moment, in May 1992, he was likely the most reviled man in the entire Commonwealth of Virginia.
McCloskey sat compact and round, a balding man with an efficient manner. He wore a beige suit with a tie, attire more at home sitting on a church pew than on the floor of a jail. Coleman was 16 years younger but looked equally out of place. He appeared owlish; his outdated eyeglasses covered fully half his face, and his prison-issue shirt didn’t seem to fit his narrow shoulders.
At first, years ago, the two men had regarded each other as acquaintances, partners in the business of establishing Coleman’s innocence. But as time shrank and desperation grew, they came to be something more. McCloskey’s ministry flows from love; not romance, or overgrown fondness, but love in the sense Christ described: the humbling of self for the sake of a neighbor. So McCloskey found himself descended to an accused murderer’s level, sitting on the jail floor with the seat and knees of his trousers coated with dust sloughed from the feet of inmates. From the soles of doomed men.
McCloskey’s and Coleman’s lives, which started at geographically and ideologically distant places, now intertwined. They sat and ate the cold pizza, sometimes laughing and sometimes weeping. But mostly they chatted the way two tired brothers might, about the mundane details of existence — bickering relatives, politics, an overheard joke — as Coleman’s life slipped toward its final moments.
At one point, the prisoner gazed over McCloskey’s shoulder, where he could see a television in the prison guards’ room. They were watching Wheel of Fortune. “Look,” Coleman said. McCloskey turned, and watched a contestant solve the day’s big puzzle: “Miscarriage of Justice.” They found that, in some dry way, funny.
Soon the executioner at Virginia’s Greensville Penitentiary would throw a switch to send two jolts of electricity through Coleman’s body: a high-voltage shock to do the job, followed by a low-voltage shock to make sure.
At one point, Coleman interrupted his commune with McCloskey, stood up, and retreated to the back of his cell. McCloskey watched as Coleman tore off a scrap of paper towel and searched for a pencil.
The prisoner had entrusted his life — and perhaps more important, his honor — to McCloskey. And the minister, in turn, had given years to the prisoner; he had staked his reputation — his very ministry — on Coleman’s innocence. His innocence, in fact, would eventually become an internationally important case of life and death.
Coleman bent over the paper. “My final words,” he said, and began to write.
JIM MCCLOSKEY STARTED his life in a position so privileged, so groomed for power, that no man could have lost it by mere incompetence; no, McCloskey did it with a specific and vigorous determination.
He grew up in Havertown in the 1940s and ’50s, a son of the wealthy McCloskey family: His great-uncle enjoyed a close relationship with John F. Kennedy, and served under him as ambassador to Ireland. The family also owned McCloskey & Co., one of the largest construction companies in the country, and owned the Philadelphia Daily News during Jim’s childhood.
Jim’s parents attended a conservative Presbyterian church as he grew up, and though he didn’t connect with the church’s message, Jim did understand the story of the Good Samaritan. When Jim was very young, his mother contracted polio, and in the late 1940s, people incorrectly thought polio was particularly contagious, so they took pains to avoid it. The McCloskeys’ neighbors, rather than walk past their house, would cross to the other side of the street, and otherwise ignored the entire family. “Except one lady, named Mrs. Boyd,” McCloskey recalls. Tears still spring to his eyes when he remembers the woman who lived in his neighborhood. “She would come right into the house and take care of my mother.” Her example affected the boy profoundly; when the world turned aside from his stricken mother — from the polio house — a single caring woman stayed by her side.
Throughout school, Jim dated a girl — he now calls her “Jane,” for fear of embarrassing her even all these years later — who captured his heart. As the years passed, from time to time she would go out with older boys, but she always returned to him, ever faithful. One Friday night, Jim took her on a typical teenage date — a movie, a snack, and back to the front porch — then said goodbye. On Monday morning, a friend asked him, “Did you hear about Jane?”
Jim said, “What do you mean? We went out Friday. … ”
“She got married this weekend,” the friend said. Jane had been seeing some older fellow, and using Jim as a cover for her parents. Jim felt devastated — not only in losing Jane, but by the betrayal itself.
After school he joined the Navy, and as a young officer in 1964 he requested an assignment as far from Pennsylvania as any brokenhearted boy could go: Japan. The Navy stationed him in Yokosuka, at the mouth of Tokyo Bay, and he drank in the exoticism: neon lights in the city, paper lanterns in doorways, delicate women wrapped in silk. He felt intoxicated by one young woman in particular, a girl named Emiko who worked on the naval base.
One night, as they stood outside her home, she invited him beyond its sliding paper door. She placed him at a kotatsu, a knee-high table in the center of a small room, and served him tea. Jim quickly fell in love. Later, after they had lived together several months, Emiko told McCloskey she planned to take a vacation in the United States, touring the country for two months.
“That’s wonderful,” he told her. “You’ve got to go see my parents while you’re in Philadelphia.”
She set sail for the American West Coast, promising to write often.
Days passed, then weeks, and finally the date of her return approached. McCloskey visited the old lady who lived next door to Emiko. “I’ve heard nothing from Emiko,” McCloskey told her. “Have you gotten word? A letter?”
The lady looked downcast. “Have you not heard, Jim?” she said. “Emiko is married. To an American.”
McCloskey thanked her and reeled away. How could he be so blind? He had loyally helped Emiko move her furniture into storage before she left — but why would she do that for a two-month-long trip?
He knew betrayal from the West, betrayal from the East, and now he felt the compulsion to cast off his old life once again. To swerve in a new direction, to explore some dark place in the world and in himself.
He wanted, more than anything, to shoot someone.
ROGER COLEMAN WAS, undeniably, a man with a past.
As a teenager, in 1977, he had stopped for a drink of water at a teacher’s house in his hometown of Grundy, Virginia. It’s a small place, home to fewer than 1,500 people, and the teacher let Coleman inside. After a little conversation, he tried to sexually assault her, and she ran outside, where neighbors called police. He served two years in the state prison.
By 1981, Coleman, now 22, had settled back into Grundy life. He and his new teenaged wife lived with his grandmother in a rudimentary trailer, and he worked — like most Grundy men — in the local coal mines.
The night of March 10th would later be reconstructed moment by moment in court, as prosecutors tried to make their case against Coleman, and his defense attorneys made theirs.
He showed up at the mines about 9 p.m., when he learned that he and everyone on his crew had been laid off for that shift. Coleman spent some time talking to co-workers, and then to a friend he ran into on the road.
Coleman continued on in his pickup truck, and passed his mobile home. It sat on a hillside, across a small valley from the home where his wife’s sister lived with her husband. The sister’s name was Wanda McCoy; she’d married into the famous feuding McCoy clan. Coleman stopped at a friend’s house, where he retrieved a music tape he had left earlier.
Then — according to prosecutors — Coleman drove down to a creek in the valley, where a bridge led to Wanda McCoy’s neighborhood. They say he hid his truck on a small dirt road near the bridge, then walked across to the McCoy house, where a bulb lit the front porch.
Wanda’s husband, Brad, would end his shift at the mines at 11 p.m., and then would drive just a couple of miles home. Prosecutors say that shortly before 11 p.m., Coleman climbed the McCoys’ front steps with a pocketknife in his hand and murder in his heart.
MCCLOSKEY REQUESTED a new assignment from the Navy, away from Japan and all its lovely treason. He wanted action. Bullets. Blood. And word was, in 1965, that a young officer could find all those things in a newly important outpost: Vietnam.
McCloskey arrived in Saigon with little soldiering experience and took on what may have been the most dangerous job in the world at that moment — serving as an American adviser to a South Vietnamese junk fleet, made up of 50-foot wooden boats with guns at each end. They patrolled the Mekong Delta, ran search-and-destroy missions, delivered the Navy’s SEALs to clandestine destinations. All the while, the junk fleet crews waited for machine-gun fire to burst from the banks and devour them. But McCloskey drifted on the current — of the Mekong, of the war, and of his own life — without flinching, because he felt guided by faith. His very childhood had prepared him for this moment, for the belief in authority and his government, for the purpose of this war.
That all changed one night on the river, when a call came over McCloskey’s radio: His Army counterparts were chasing a group of 10 Vietcong fighters along the river bank, and requested the support of a helicopter gunship and McCloskey’s junk fleet. McCloskey moved into position, blocking any escape — only to find his boats strafed by the gunship. “Wrong target! Wrong target!” he called into his radio.
Eventually they rounded up the VC soldiers, and deposited them with the South Vietnamese commander at a nearby village. Later, when they finished the night’s patrol, they returned to the village and found all 10 men lying on a dock, executed. McCloskey was horrified, and said so in his situation report for his superiors. They scoffed. Don’t be naïve, they said.
In Vietnam, McCloskey would go on to win a Bronze Star for conduct under fire, but in a larger sense he had failed in war; certainly the war had failed him, just like romance. The reality of his country’s conduct shredded his faith once again. So he changed directions one more time: Now he would find purpose in money. At 26 years old, he thought “expatriate” and “international businessman” sounded romantic, and American companies were eager to make progress in Japan. So McCloskey decided to use his expertise in Japanese culture to make a career.
He lived for several years in Tokyo, but always felt a certain dissatisfaction, which he attributed to being a gaijin, or “outside person,” in Japan. So he bounced to New York and then home to Philadelphia in 1974, climbing up through the business world. He made increasingly large amounts of money, and ultimately settled at the Hay Group, a prestigious Philadelphia-based consulting firm. But none of it satisfied him.
By day he worked as a forward-tilted businessman, snagging accounts and sealing deals. But secretly he started to attend Paoli Presbyterian Church, where pastor Richard Streeter focused on Jesus Christ’s admonition to his followers: “I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, naked and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” The message hit McCloskey with a wallop. What Christ meant, he understood, was that society’s downtrodden, its despised — its polio-stricken — represent Christ in the world. So McCloskey, ever searching for his life’s purpose, pitched himself into church work.
Then, suddenly, in one whack, McCloskey abandoned the high-paying job and his house, and as a 37-year-old man moved into a dormitory at Princeton Theological Seminary. In his second year there, in 1980, he volunteered to serve as a chaplain at Trenton State Prison. McCloskey counseled an inmate named Jorge De Los Santos, serving the sixth year of a life sentence for murder, who swore his innocence and asked McCloskey to dig up his trial transcripts and read them. The brand-new minister found several inconsistencies; after a couple of years of deeper investigation, he discovered, in fact, that the prisoner’s conviction had been a framework of lies and deal-cutting. He presented his finding to a federal judge, who overturned De Los Santos’s conviction and set him free.
After that initial victory, McCloskey moved his operation into the rent-free second floor of an elderly lady’s home in Princeton, and incorporated his ministry. Although he earned his master’s degree from the seminary, he never did preach; his calling lay elsewhere. After searching for it in romance, in travel, in war and in business, he had at last found it in the world of barbed wire, steel bars and desperate men.
He named his new organization Centurion Ministries, after the Roman soldier who stood at the foot of the cross, looked up at Christ, and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.”
BRAD MCCOY, WANDA’S HUSBAND, ended his shift at the mines and returned home a few minutes after 11 p.m., climbing the same porch steps prosecutors say Roger Coleman had climbed just minutes before.
The porch light, Brad noticed, had been turned off. Strange.
In the living room, a light and the television were on, and he saw that the coffee table had been pushed out of place. He noticed a few droplets of blood on the floor. He found Wanda lying on the floor of a rear bedroom. Someone had pushed her sweater up around her neck, and her dark blue underwear hung on her left foot. Blood smeared the walls, and pooled on the floor from her slashed neck and a stab wound in her chest. Her killer had wrapped her red hair over her face. Her skin still felt warm.
A detective showed up at Coleman’s house the next day with the news about Wanda and a few questions. He asked for the clothes Coleman was wearing the night before, including blue jeans that were wet along the bottom 10 inches of each leg. Coleman also handed over a pocketknife. Investigators took samples of his body hair, and various bodily fluids. Police arrested Coleman shortly thereafter; Wanda McCoy was terribly shy, and would only have unlocked her door for someone she knew well, like her brother-in-law Roger.
During Coleman’s trial, prosecutors said Coleman slashed Wanda’s throat, stabbed her in the chest, and then raped her in the rear bedroom. They said he turned out the porch light before he left. Since he knew her husband Brad would drive home over the same bridge he had used to approach the house, he waded through the stream below it, then climbed into his hidden truck and drove away.
Coleman’s defense lawyers said otherwise. He had reported for work in his mining clothes, and so was covered in coal dust even though his crew had been laid off for the night. So he went to a public bathhouse near home — his trailer had no shower — and washed himself. The cuffs of his jeans had soaked up water from the bathhouse floor. And every other moment of his time was accounted for, that night.
The prosecutors countered with forensic evidence. Two hairs found on Wanda McCoy’s body couldn’t be linked directly to Coleman, but they were of the same type. The state’s forensic expert testified that a small amount of blood remained on Coleman’s pocketknife, although it could have been squirrel blood. More important, he said that Coleman, like about four in five men, was a “secretor,” meaning his saliva, semen and other bodily fluids carried trace amounts of his blood type. And his blood was Type B, like about 10 percent of the population. So combining the two narrowing elements — the secretion, and the blood type, which matched fluids at the crime scene — it appeared certain that he had attacked Wanda McCoy.
Or at least, very likely.
CENTURION MINISTRIES WAS WELL under way by the time Coleman crossed McCloskey’s path in 1988. The minister worked on charity, from grants and private donations, and his reputation grew with each successful release of a wrongly convicted man. (By the time he completed Roger Coleman’s case, in 1992, McCloskey had been wrong about one man, ran out of time with another, and freed 12 from life sentences or death sentences.)
McCloskey had come to a realization when he left behind his old life, one he felt Christ intended for all true Christians: that all the achievement in the world, all the art, all the music and architecture and literature, all the money and power and wealth — and the aggregate of these good things since the start of human history — none of it equaled the salvation of one soul. And McCloskey took that literally, freeing one man at a time from earthly bondage, with hope that each soul might follow: even the most despised.
Coleman fit that description. After a four-day trial and three hours of jury deliberation, a Virginia judge sentenced him to death, and now talk circulated about erecting a new “hanging tree” in Grundy. But when McCloskey met Coleman, he found the inmate to be wholly unlike the monster the locals described. He seemed thoughtful and articulate, soft-spoken and gentle.
They met in a small conference room off death row; Coleman walked in wearing shackles and chains between his hands and feet. McCloskey never meets his prisoner-clients until the final step of his initial investigation into a case’s worthiness. He sticks to trial transcripts, legal motions, witness accounts and other paperwork until the end, because he doesn’t want a prisoner’s shifty-eyed demeanor to color his opinion. He spent three hours with Coleman that day, grinding through the grit of the case; McCloskey already knew all the details, but he wanted to test Coleman, to hear his voice, to know him as a man. And Coleman, the minister said, “looked me square in the eye. Earnest. Authentic. Forthright. Not charismatic, he could never snow you over with his charisma. But he was forthright.”
McCloskey found an outcast, in Coleman. A leper crying out for healing.
When McCloskey started to investigate Coleman’s case, he discovered some disturbing inconsistencies. For instance, for Coleman to have committed the crime, he would have had to hide his truck, hike to the McCoy house, overpower and injure Wanda, drag her through the house, rape her, then ford the creek and escape in his truck, all within about 10 minutes.
And another whopping piece of evidence turned up during McCloskey’s work: In 1990, three women from Grundy signed court affidavits swearing that a different man — a neighbor of Wanda McCoy’s, in fact — had attacked them. One specified that he had held a knife to her throat. And another woman, Teresa Horn, swore the man had pushed her hair across her face — like Wanda’s. She also testified that the man had confessed to her he’d killed Wanda McCoy; she then repeated that to a local television news crew. (He denied the allegations.)
The day after her TV interview, Teresa Horn was found dead. Police said she died from an overdose of prescription pills and found no evidence of foul play. But because of the timing, people close to her suspected she was murdered because she came forward.
As years passed, and McCloskey built his case for Coleman’s innocence, the two enjoyed long phone calls; the prisoner called collect, and the minister always accepted. The relationship took on the paradoxic distant closeness of middle-school courtship, where the authorities — parents and prison guards — keep the suitors apart physically, but they find sustenance in long hours of telephone conversation, ending with the promise of another call and the soreness of an overused ear.
McCloskey and Coleman took part in a whirlwind media blitz, including Newsweek, Larry King Live, the Today show and others. Coleman stared at America from the cover of Time magazine, with a headline warning, “This man might be innocent. This man is due to die.” The pope himself called for clemency.
THE PEPPERONI PROBABLY SIZZLED as it left Domino’s, but by the time it wound its way through the maze of bureaucracy at the state penitentiary, it was as cold as the cinder-block walls.
McCloskey sat with Coleman, as did Coleman’s attorney, Kitty Behan, in his final hours. Prison attendants came and shaved him — his head, his eyebrows, everything. He looked ghostly. Dead already. He copied down his final words on the scrap of paper towel, and handed it through the cell bars to McCloskey. The minister made him a promise: I will work to prove your innocence, however long it takes.
When Coleman’s final 15 minutes arrived, just before midnight on May 20th, attendants escorted McCloskey and Behan to an administrative lobby. They didn’t want to witness the execution. A few minutes after midnight, word arrived: It’s over. Roger Coleman is dead.
McCloskey, stunned, stepped outside to face a bank of television cameras from around the world. He read for them Coleman’s final words: “An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight. When my innocence is proven, I hope Americans will realize the injustice of the death penalty as all other civilized countries have.”
The minister then headed back to his hotel, where he wandered into the bar. He sat down, and tossed back a couple of stiff and un-ministerial bourbons.
MCCLOSKEY TURNED HIS MIND away from Roger Coleman and carried on his work, freeing wrongly convicted men and women all over America. But still Coleman lingered, calling, a bespectacled and soft-spoken apparition.
The minister couldn’t bring Roger Coleman back into the world, of course. He would have to wait for the world to come to Roger Coleman. And it did, eventually: Scientists unlocked the mysteries of something called deoxyribonucleic acid, now known as DNA.
In 2000, McCloskey reopened the Coleman case, and asked Virginia’s governor for a posthumous test of the fluids found in Wanda McCoy. McCloskey isn’t a political man; he doesn’t agitate for any cause but innocence, and takes on cases regardless of whether an innocent prisoner is on death row. But in this case, he found himself alongside a powerful and vocal anti-death-penalty faction. Roger Coleman’s case took on a new and profound importance: If DNA evidence cleared his name, he would be the first provably innocent man put to death in the United States.
McCloskey and his new allies started up the old machine, calling, writing letters, pressing and pushing. The Virginia attorney general’s office resisted, insisting that Coleman’s legal case ended with his death — the greatest finality — and so ended the public’s right to know.
Earlier this year, the government finally relented, and outgoing Virginia governor Mark Warner ordered the DNA tested to determine whether Coleman’s matched the crime scene. It was the first time a governor has ever done so after a prisoner’s execution. McCloskey waited for the lab results: an exoneration for his friend, at last. A promise kept. And finally, the truth came:
Roger Coleman raped and killed Wanda McCoy.
The old betrayal, once again. McCloskey almost couldn’t believe the result. His mind knew better than to argue with DNA, but his heart couldn’t accept Coleman’s guilt. Certainly this man he had believed for some 10 years must be innocent. But no.
Coleman, in truth, deceived McCloskey much more than the women of the minister’s youth had. At least their deceptions were understandably selfish; they acted in the interests of their own happy lives — marriage to this boy, or that one — and McCloskey’s unhappiness only came about as a by-product of their thoughtlessness. Coleman, however, knew he would die in a matter of minutes. And yet he presented McCloskey with a handwritten, grandiose declaration of his victimhood at the hands of the state, then accepted McCloskey’s pledge to prove that innocence. He collared McCloskey with a leash that reached from beyond the grave, and robbed him of more than a decade’s worth of mental peace. A unique and total betrayal.
The big anti-death-penalty groups quickly distanced themselves from the DNA finding, saying that one correct execution meant little, and didn’t reflect on the thousands of questionable executions that came before it. But truly, if the results had gone the other way, those groups would have proclaimed the execution all-important, and only reflective of a thousand others.
Only McCloskey remained forthright, because he carried no banners, subscribed to no politics, and cared solely for truth. Even when it stabs and slashes. “I know now I was wrong,” he announced to the world’s press. “Indeed, this is a bitter pill to swallow.”
IN MCCLOSKEY’S OFFICE in downtown Princeton, the walls bear witness to his work: photographs of men and women he helped exonerate, smiling a whole spectrum of smiles as they step into the sunlight outside this courtroom or that prison.
The minister moves around the room, touching the pictures, remembering the embraces and tears and sworn loyalties. This one said something funny, this one wept.
So far, Centurion Ministries has completed 50 cases. A few were unworkable, for various reasons, and in five the prisoner was found to be guilty. In 40 cases, McCloskey’s work earned freedom for the prisoner.
The key to his success — and he doesn’t put it quite this way — is still love. “I usually examine a case about five years before I take it on,” he says, musing. “To learn the details, and the character of the prisoner. You know.”
Even his opponents admire his devotion. Tom Scott, Coleman’s prosecutor, said, “I am a fan of Jim McCloskey.”
McCloskey has found mostly success in his mission. But his singular quality is standing up again and again, when the world knocks him down. “I feel no loss. I feel only gain,” he says. “What have I gained? I’ve gained my life. By giving life to others, I’ve been given my life.”
So he climbs back to his feet and continues the work, because he believes in his mission — to gather in his hands his wealth, his reputation, his life’s work, and offer it all for one purpose: the salvation of that solitary soul.